Atom Heart Bother

Nuclear fission has public opinion split. Let’s remind people why they shouldn’t meltdown over it, because it’s our best bet yet for sustainable energy.

Presidential hopeful Vice-President Joe Biden has taken an uncommon stance in US politics: He endorsed nuclear power as a key player in his climate change response. Public support for nuclear energy has declined since the early 2010s -in no small part due to the Fukushima Daiichi incident- [1][In 2019 it was an even split 49/49], and green political stances have tended to leave it out of the equation. It’s time to take another look at why nuclear energy’s rocky reputation is problematic, and why ultimately Biden’s decision is the right one. 

Public discourse isn’t focusing on the real issues regarding nuclear energy. This does a disservice to those environmentally minded, and overlooks the many benefits of nuclear energy. Granted, nuclear plants and reactors come with their fair share of environmental issues, from waste processing to land use, but when our societies discuss the topic it’s not long until extreme examples take the fore.

A sporadic history of catastrophes

We all know about the Chernobyl disaster -now more than ever thanks to HBO’s acclaimed drama about it-, we remember the aftermath of the Fukushima incident, and perhaps we even sometimes consider the environmental, health, and social damage that came from nuclear weapons testing between 1945 and 1993 across the world [2].

These are all indeed tragic and unfortunate, but they are not as relevant as they appear when it comes to properly discussing the dangers of civil use of nuclear energy. Chernobyl was as much a failure of the Soviet Union’s approach to accountability as it was a hardware breakdown (and to be honest, Soviet hardware wasn’t necessarily up to the highest of standards either): safety concerns were overlooked, human mistakes were made, and the chain of command passed responsibility around like a hot potato [3].

As for Fukushima Daiichi, the unique geographical location of Japan -sitting on a known tectonic fault line- was the root cause [4]: At the heart of the plant’s catastrophe was, after all, the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan, followed shortly by a tsunami. On top of that, the company in charge of the plant, Tepco, later admitted that it had skimped on proper safety measures because they feared for their -and Japanese nuclear energy’s- reputation as infallible.[5]

The weight of exogenous causes compared to endogenous causes for the two most infamous nuclear-related catastrophes in recent memory is something not often considered; and in both cases, had safety protocols been stringently followed, severe harm would likely have been avoided -though it’s still not clear today that the harm caused was severe at all, at least for us [6].

Past failures have weighed overly heavily on our perspectives regarding nuclear energy. Nobody today would think of halting all seabourn cruising because of the memory of the Titanic or the Costa Concordia; neither would any sensible person believe that air travel should have stopped after 9/11 or the disappearance of flight MH103, or any other major plane crash for that matter.

We’re just shy of giving nuclear energy the Hindenburg treatment, the zeppelin that infamously burst into flames at Lakehurst in 1937. The years prior had seen other accidents involving blimps, and coupled with the rise of the more efficient airplanes, that stopped commercial use of dirigibles dead in its tracks. But this was a mistake. In addition to having noted value at the time, blimps are now starting to look like a greener alternative to planes.

What’s greener?

If we’re trying to go green in the most efficient way possible, nuclear energy seems almost a mandatory step: Wind, hydroelectric, and solar may look more virtuous on paper, but they come with their own difficulties. 

Wind and solar have similar profiles: If it rains or there’s no wind, there’s no energy produced; not to mention that both make use of rare earth minerals in their manufacture [7], the extraction of which is ecologically damaging. They also require more space than nuclear plants in order to produce similar amounts of energy, with wind turbines blowing all other renewable energies out of the park on that metric [8]

Hydroelectric infrastructure (i.e. gigantic dams like the Three Gorges Dam in China) can cause massive population displacements, have significant impacts on local ecosystems, and may actually do more environmental harm than good [9]. 

Not to mention that hydroelectric and wind installations share a strange kinship, serving respectively as passive fish, and bird blenders.

The biggest environmental impact that nuclear facilities have is in waste management, but even that is not as insurmountable an obstacle as may be claimed. Most of the waste produced is low in radioactivity. High-level radioactive waste may account for 95% of total radioactivity but only amounts to 3% of the total volume of nuclear waste produced in the world. 

Highly radioactive waste treatment is a crucial matter in constant development [10], and disposal follows the strictest standards of the day [11] – in some cases, for instance with plutonium, this high-level radioactive waste is reprocessed to further serve as fuel in thermal reactors [12], according to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency): 

“The sustainability of nuclear energy involves the preservation of natural resources and the minimization of generated wastes. In some countries, the remaining uranium (U) and plutonium (Pu) are currently industrially recovered from spent fuel and recycled as mixed oxide (MOX) in thermal reactors, saving natural uranium resources and generating vitrified HLW and irradiated spent MOX fuel. Future advanced fuel cycles based on the multirecycling of U and Pu in thermal reactors in the short term and in Gen-IV reactors in the longer term will allow nuclear energy to be almost independent of uranium natural resources and to dramatically reduce the generated wastes in terms of heat loading, radiotoxicity and proliferation risks.”

To say nothing of the potential of molten salt reactors, specifically with regards to thorium as a fuel source [13]: This chemical element is far more plentiful than usual radioactive elements like uranium, and could produce energy much more efficiently than regular fission fuels -with reduced risks and reduced wastes to boot. It is not yet a surefire solution to all of nuclear fission’s problems by any means [14], but it warrants enough attention that a joint Chinese-US project for such a reactor has been in the works since 2012 [15]. As far as we know, the current conflict between the two powers has left this endeavour untouched.

What about geopolitics?

Incidentally, for all the spotlights on the relationship between nuclear energy and the environment, we almost forget crucial geopolitical stakes that may actually have more weight in the balance than our green aspirations.

Indeed, if the question of sustainable energy is to be taken seriously, that requires global efforts: What good would it do for reducing global levels of pollution if Europe suddenly went all-in on renewable energies or nuclear if China, the United States, or India, were still guzzling oil and burning coal like nobody’s business?

The geopolitical conundrum doesn’t stop there, obviously: issues like civil uses of nuclear energy being an open door to military ones, energetic independence, and other economic incentives are obstacles to ‘going nuclear’ just as much if not sometimes more than environmental and safety concerns.

The frontier between civil and military uses of nuclear power has always been tenuous [16]. Nuclear bombs preceded nuclear plants by about a decade, and this uneasy history has stuck to this day as one of the main arguments for ending nuclear research altogether [17]. That thin line was at the core of the debates leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (more commonly known as the “Iran deal”), as evidenced by the resulting clauses of the Plan concerning enriched uranium stocks and other such measures destined to prevent the civil use of nuclear energy from helping the Republic of Iran achieve nuclear power status.

As we alluded to above, something like a nuclear transition is only relevant if the scale of the transition is big enough. That would entail spreading use of nuclear power plants to more parts of the world, something that certainly can’t be an easy prospect for liberal democracies: Given the relative ease of civil/commercial nuclear energy in becoming a military stake, the EU or the US can’t really go about handing the keys to the thermonuclear plant to any old Dick and Tator, can they? If anything, the question of North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing illustrates this particular issue glaringly.

As for independence concerns, the idea is simple: Countries that provide fuel or raw materials for the current energy makeup of most of the world (coal, natural gas, oil) have considerable reason to view any kind of transition as a threat to their relevance on the international stage, especially if that relevance is directly linked to the production of said materials -think OPEP, Russia, etc. That is also true for rare metals, which China overwhelmingly mines for export.

That ties in directly to the economic incentives at stake when it comes to the thorny question of energy in general. More broadly, countries that are currently industrializing on a massive scale (like China or India) are far from considering nuclear energy as a real alternative to their current needs -that much is clear just by glancing at their carbon emissions.

Global projects do exist

It’s not like international research and experimentation with nuclear energy development is nonexistent, to be fair -far from it. One of the most daring enterprises in this field today is the ITER project (for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor; also latin for “the way”). A massive endeavour spearheaded by Russia, the United States, China, South Korea, the European Union, the UK, and Switzerland, it aims to explore the possibility of harnessing nuclear fusion -the atomic reaction at work in stellar bodies like our Sun- in a not so distant future [18] [19].

Humanity has already mastered aspects of fusion -as with all things nuclear, the weapons aspects, and even that requires the use of nuclear fission first [Reminder: Fission is breaking atoms apart, Fusion is pushing them together]- but so far no country has been able to artificially create nuclear fusion for civil purposes. This is where ITER, the world’s biggest scientific project to this day (both in terms of scale and budget), comes in.

Since 1985, countless teams of scientists and engineers have been working on creating the largest Tokamak reactor (essentially a huge toroidal [think of a single macaroni closed in on itself/eating its own tail] chamber strapped with magnets that accelerate the movement of atoms within it and heat them to extreme temperatures to produce energy), in order to determine whether industrial scale nuclear fusion can actually be done.

This is no small task: the energy needed to heat up atoms in a Tokamak is massive, so return on energy investment is the name of the game -and ITER will attempt to get a tenfold return. Naturally, with such high stakes come no small potential rewards as well. Fusion has none of the risks of the current nuclear energy plants, and none of the drawbacks: no radioactive waste, no direct link to military uses, no possibility of meltdowns [20]. 

If the current exploitation of nuclear power is our best chance as of yet to transition out of fossil fuels and carbon emissions -again, solar and wind are nowhere near as efficient and nowhere near as clean-, then nuclear fusion is the holy grail of green energy. And it could be much closer than we think.

Which is why it’s so important that we don’t make rash decisions when it comes to nuclear power. It’s also why Vice-President Biden’s endorsement of nuclear energy in his plan to combat climate change is the right decision. The electricity produced by nuclear energy can’t easily be replaced by what we may see as greener and more sustainable means of production, and the alternatives are contrary to an environmentally sound policy. Our future lies, it seems, beyond the atom-bricked road.

Sources:

  1. Rebecca Riffkin, “For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy”, Gallup, March 18 2016
    “US public opinion evenly split on nuclear”, World Nuclear News, April 1 2019
  2. List of nuclear weapons tests, Wikipedia
  3. Fiche pédagogique: Tchernobyl, Connaissance des Energies
  4. Paul Marks, “Fukushima throws spotlight on quake zone nuclear power”, New Scientist, March 16 2011
  5. Internet archive Martin Fackler, “Japan Power Company Admits Failings on Plant Precautions”, The New York Times, October 12 2012
  6. Hannah Ritchie, “What was the death toll from Chernobyl and Fukushima?”, Our World in Data, June 24 2017
  7. Avery Thompson, “We Might Not Have Enough Materials for All the Solar Panels and Wind Turbines We Need”, Popular Mechanics, December 13 2018
  8. Céline Deluzarche, “Les énergies renouvelables ont-elles un impact sur la biodiversité ?”, Futura Sciences, March 30 2020
  9. Duncan Graham-Rowe, “Hydroelectric power’s dirty secret revealed”, New Scientist, February 24 2005
  10. Laura Gil, “Seeking a Solution for Radioactive Waste in Argentina”, IAEA, November 30 2017
  11. “Status and Trends in Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste Management”, IAEA Nuclear Energy Series, IAEA, 2018
  12. “Management of Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors”, Proceedings Series, IAEA, 2015
  13. Fatima Arkin, “An alternative fuel for nuclear energy looms”, SciDevNet, January 25 2016
  14. Gordon Edwards, “Thorium reactors: Back to the Dream Factory”, CCNR, July 13 2011
  15. Mark Halper, “U.S. partners with China on new nuclear”, ZDNet, June 26 2012
  16. William J. Broad, “The Thin Line Between Civilian and Military Nuclear Programs”, The New York Times, December 5 2007
  17. Jim Green, “The myth of the peaceful atom – debunking the misinformation peddled by the nuclear industry and its supporters”, Nuclear Free Campaign, May 2015
  18. “What is ITER?”, ITER website
  19. “The ITER story”, ITER website
  20. “Fusion – Frequently Asked Questions”, IAEA

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Comments

  1. This is a wonderful post. Will definitely use it while discussing nuclear energy. I agree with you, nuclear has to be in the energy mix if we want to shift to cleaner energy.
    The geopolitics is the biggest challenge, I suppose.

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